Voting rights advocates represented by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on Wednesday accusing Georgia’s Secretary of State of instituting an unconstitutional poll tax by requiring voters to buy postage stamps when submitting mail-in absentee ballots and mail-in absentee ballot applications.
“The legal claim is straightforward,” a press release issued by the ACLU said. “The Constitution bans poll taxes. Postage costs money. Election officials require Georgia voters to pay postage when submitting mail-in absentee ballots, amounting to a poll tax.”
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of the Black Voters Matter Fund and DeKalb County registered voter Megan Gordon, the 21-page complaint alleged that Georgia’s postage stamp requirement for mail-in absentee ballots violates the First, Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Amendments.
The Supreme Court outlawed the use of poll taxes by invalidating a $1.50 poll tax in Virginia in 1966.
The filing offered a tidy summary of the argument:
Though the stakes are high, the legal claim is simple. The United States Constitution (through the Twenty-Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments) bans poll taxes. Georgia election officials require voters to use their own postage when submitting mail-in absentee ballots and applications. Postage costs money. Thus, Defendants have imposed a poll tax in violation of the Constitution.
“Voters are required to affix their own postage when mailing in the absentee ballot, according to guidance issued by the Secretary of State,” the lawsuit said. “There do not appear to be any statutes or regulations that require government officials to charge voters postage on absentee ballots.”
The ACLU also pointed out that Georgia’s voter-bought stamp requirement is something of an anomaly when it comes to voting materials provided by the Peach State–while noting that other states provide mail-in ballots with state-paid postage.
“There is nothing especially mysterious or difficult about providing a postage prepaid envelopes or mailings to voters,” the filing explains. “Defendants have already done it because they are already required to do so for [voting] list maintenance purposes. And other states including Kansas, Iowa, and West Virginia, have been able to provide postage prepaid envelopes for mail-in absentee voters.”
The lawsuit explicitly connected the constitutional claim to the ongoing novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and quarantine regime in place to combat the spread of the virus.
This case is about protecting American democracy at a time when we are facing a worldwide pandemic. The Governor has declared a state of emergency and ordered everyone to stay at home unless absolutely necessary to go outside. The infection and death count is ticking upwards each day.
Under these circumstances, voting in-person is no longer a realistic option for most if not all voters. Voting in-person unnecessarily endangers theand all others similarly situated, Defendants.1health and safety of voters and anyone they come into contact with well after voting. If this weren’t enough, voting in-person has become even harder as poll workers across Georgia (many who are elderly) are quitting in droves to limit the risk of potentially deadly exposure.
“Under these circumstances, many voters have reasonably decided to vote from the safety of home by casting mail-in absentee ballots,” the lawsuit continues. “With the ongoing pandemic, the number of mail-in votes is expected to skyrocket this year at record-breaking levels. Voting by mail may become the new normal as more and more people vote by mail for the first time. Given the surge of voters who will be casting mail-in absentee ballots this year, it is all the more critical that all unconstitutional barriers to mail-in voting be removed as soon as possible.”
“Because the COVID-19 pandemic has made it unrealistic for most, if not all, voters to cast ballots in-person, the state is essentially forcing voters to pay in order to participate in our democracy,” the ACLU’s press release notes.
The lawsuit also addressed likely arguments from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that voting by mail isn’t mandatory.
“A poll tax remains unconstitutional even if there are free alternatives to voting, such as voting in-person,” the filing notes. “But the ‘option’ of voting in-person does not really exist because of the pandemic. And voting in-person is already nearly impossible for certain voters that are elderly, disabled, or out of town. Voters are thus trapped into paying an unconstitutional poll tax just to cast a ballot by mail.”
Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, echoed those concerns in a statement.
“No one should have to choose between protecting their health and their right to vote. Voting by mail will be the safest option for many voters. In failing to provide prepaid postage for absentee ballots, Georgia is creating an unconstitutional obstacle to voting,” Lakin said. “We won’t allow for a modern-day poll tax.”
Additionally, the lawsuit noted the racial and class confines of the state’s poll tax and the lawsuit’s expected beneficiaries.
“[T]his case is not really about middle-class or wealthy people,” the filing said. “This case is about marginalized voters who come from communities who have historically faced over a century of racist voter suppression, including the use poll taxes to disenfranchise voters, and who rightfully refuse to pay another cent for the right to vote.”
“This case is about voters who have always voted in-person to honor their Black ancestors who have fought and died for the right to vote, but now cannot. This case is about voters who live on shoestring budgets and lack access to all the resources such as time, money, and transportation that wealthier people take for granted,” the plaintiffs argued at length. “This case is about voters who don’t have Internet access, smartphones, email addresses, printers, or scanners in a home office where they can download, print, scan, and e-mail absentee ballot applications to avoid paying postage. This case is about lower-income voters who have overlapping work and childcare responsibilities and cannot just skip work or family obligations to buy stamps at a post office just to vote.”
Cliff Albright is the co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter Fund, the organizational plaintiff in the suit.
“By refusing to provide voters with postage paid envelopes, the secretary of state has not only imposed a poll tax on individual voters, he has placed an undue burden on the organizations dedicated to increasing voter turnout,” he said in a statement. “Given the history of the secretary of state’s office viewing voter mobilization organizations as threats, rather than vital components in strengthening democracy, one can’t help but wonder if this undue burden was actually one of his objectives.”
Law&Crime reached out to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office for comment and clarification on this article but no response was forthcoming at the time of publication.
Read the full complaint below:
[image via Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images]
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